‘You can plan yourself to death:’ How Jacksonville can turn renderings into reality

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Downtown Jacksonville development is big on potential, but for decades slow on progress.


The landing came and went. Now in the midst of a billion dollar stadium renovation negotiation we want to know how the city can turn renderings into reality.

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Action News Jax John Bachmn went to Tampa, where last year, their river walk drew a million people to their once “doomed downtown.”

Broken down wharfs, abandoned warehouses, an old city water facility, are now shops, restaurants and parks along the river.

“It wasn’t that long ago that there were 600 people that lived in downtown Tampa. 400 of them lived in the Morgan street jail.”

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Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn credits the river walk for what’s happened there in the last 5-to-10 years.

“We refer to it as an overnight success 40 years in the making.” He says.

Tampa’s river walk started slowly in the late 70′s. It wasn’t until recently when Tampa got a $10 million federal grant, and invested another $5 million to $6 million that they extended it to 2 and a half miles and people noticed.

Buckhorn says, “That singular event, the completion of that Riverwalk transformed our city, more so than any investment that we’ve ever made in any project.”

Buckhorn points to a restaurant, an old city water facility next to a spring fed creek that flows to the river. The creek now attracts manatees, and the restaurant attracts people. Not long ago, the spring was clogged and overgrown. The city cleaned it up, built the park, and leased the building to a restaurant owner for a dollar for 99 years.

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Buckhorn says, “He invested $7 million into that restaurant that is one of the hottest restaurants in downtown Tampa. He made his money back in a year.”

In Tampa they have the art museum right next to the children’s museum. About a mile down the river, they have the hockey stadium and the convention center. The one thread that connects all of them is the river walk.

Buckhorn says, “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested around this river walk. And you know, you’ve got residential, you’ve got retail, you got commercial, you’ve got hospitality, it now is the focal point for everything that we do.”

Aliyah Jones has lived through the transformation in downtown Tampa for the last 10 years. She says, “Actually change a lot, a lot of new development, a lot of high rises and everything like that and more development and for apartments and trying to do affordable communities but more upscale for the tenants that needed.”

READ: Gateway Jax to release renderings on new downtown project

Bachman asked her if she’d ever been to Jacksonville and how it compares to Tampa. Her answer, “I like this one.”

According to the Jacksonville Historical Society, Jacksonville’s river walk was built in the 80′s. Buckhorn says Jacksonville’s river walk can work if there’s a reason to go to it and when it connects attractions. The landing came and went and plans for a museum district connected to Shad Khan’s hotel development are...plans.

“You can plan yourself to death and I know that there are like 50 plans and Jacksonville about what to do with that river, at some point you got to execute them,” Buckhorn adds, “And that I think gets down to leadership.”

For Tampa’s former mayor, turning renderings into reality in Jacksonville starts at the top.

He says, “First and foremost, mayoral leadership matters. The mayor has the biggest pulpit, and the mayor can drive the narrative. The mayor can tell the story. The mayor can negotiate with private capital.”

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Mayor Buckhorn supports Mayor Deegan. The mayor’s office and city leaders are in the middle of pushing the stadium deal across the finish line. When I asked Buckhorn what Jacksonville should do right away, he said extend the river walk to the stadium and to where the entertainment district might go. We reached out to the mayor’s office, but she’s been busy with the stadium negotiations. She has made it clear that downtown development, along with other parts of the city are important to her.

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